This essay looks back at the changes that unfolded in Central Europe since 1989 from the perspective of freedom of movement. The iconic tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the rapid openings in other socialist countries put an end to borders as “institutions of isolation.” In the course of the next two decades, ten postsocialist countries initiated and completed the process of joining the European Union (EU). The end of border controls and the ability to move freely within a unifying Europe was hailed as one of the main benefits of integration east of the former Iron Curtain. However, internal freedom of movement requires tight and secure external borders, such as the one that today divides Poland and Ukraine. In this essay, I draw on my research in those two countries to compare the socialist and the EU border regimes, the ways they have pervaded quotidian experience and the distinct modes in which they have imposed limitations on human mobility.
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The founders of the Solidarity movement in Poland (today bitterly divided and supporting conflicting visions of contemporary politics) often express frustration that the catalytic role of the Polish labor union in the collapse of communism is overshadowed by the spectacular nature of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. As far as Germany is concerned, in her fine ethnography of a divided German village Daphne Berdahl (1999) points out that the vanishing of the border was a process much more ambiguous and confusing than the triumphalism of the standard narrative would seem to suggest.
Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Slovenia were accepted into the EU on May 1, 2004. Bulgaria and Romania joined on January 1, 2007. At present, the candidate states are Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and—more controversially—Turkey.
In the fall of 2003, before Poland was admitted to the EU, Nasha Sprava, a youth organization in the borderland Ukrainian region of Volhynia staged a happening where they built a styrofoam wall near the border, decorated it with graffiti and then destroyed it in front of local television cameras. Protests linking the new rules to the Berlin Wall were organized also in December of 2007, just as the border was tightened further in preparation for joining Schengen (see http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,531083,00.html accessed on September 12, 2008). For a sharp critique of the alienating effect of the border see also Riabchuk and Mykola 2005.
In her ethnography of the privatization of a baby food factory in Poland, Elizabeth Dunn cites her landlady as having said, “A hundred years of communism without znajomosci! . . . That is the worse curse you could have imagined under socialism” (Dunn 2004:119). The word znajomosci is derived from the verb znac, to know, and it connotes an ambient acquaintance, a reciprocal and trusted personal connection that one could call upon (and be called upon by) in need. In the context of travel formalities, znajomosci in passport offices, consulates, and among airline employees were among the most valued.
The Archives of the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw store ample evidence that permissions to travel abroad were often used by the secret police as a carrot to recruit informants (see http://www.ipn.gov.pl/portal/en/7/44/Office_for_Preservation_and_Dissemination_of_Archival_Records.html accessed September 19, 2008).
In the 1970s and 80s, tourism within the Soviet bloc—vacationing in Bulgaria on the Black Sea, or in Hungary on Lake Balaton—emerged as a popular pastime and an expression of relative prosperity. For an exhaustive collection examining travel and tourism in the Soviet bloc, see Gorsuch and Koenker (2006).
The Museum of the Berlin Wall, known as Haus am Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin exhibits the documentation concerning some of the more spectacular escapes and commemorates the persons who were shot on attempt of making a crossing (as of 2006, a German institution called the Center for Contemporary Historical Research has been able to confirm 125 such deaths; see http://www.chronik-der-mauer.de/ accessed on June 16, 2007).
This does not mean that no one ever visited socialist countries. But the trajectories, experiences and perceptions of foreigners, from the West or otherwise, who visited or resided in the east bloc are a vastly understudied topic. The few incisive exceptions include accounts of the encounters of Jeffrey C. Goldfarb (Goldfarb, 2006) with Polish dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s and—from a very different perspective— the work by Kesha Fikes’ and Alaina Lemon (2002) on African diaspora in the dissolving Soviet Union.
The key example of such exile support was the formidable Parisian circle of the journal Kultura (see Kostrzewa 1990).
Initially, the Schengen Accord was separate from European Treaties. It became incorporated into the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997; the EU fully embraced the idea of constructing the larger European “area of freedom, security and justice.”
I use the term habitus here in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense of a “socialized body, a structured body, a body which has incorporated the immanent structures of a world or of a particular sector of the world—a field—and which structures the perception of that world as well as action in that world.” (Bourdieu 1998:81)
Before 1989, crossing the Poland–USSR border required an invitation. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the old system remained in place, although was mostly not enforced. The transit rules with Ukraine were even more liberal and the only requirement was showing a certain small amount of money (Iglicka 1999).
Estimating the numbers of persons who are not admitted into the EU’s territory presents massive challenges. There are no centralized statistics that would for example tally up visa rejections for the entire Schengen zone. The 300,000 estimate refers to people who attempted to enter Europe illegally and were apprehended (Duvell 2006).
Readmission policies are bilateral administrative agreements that allow for handing over illegal migrants to the border authorities of a neighboring country. They raise particular concerns because the practices they sanction are not subject to judicial oversight. There is no mechanism to ensure that persons who are being sent back have access to humanitarian assistance and proper asylum procedure (HRW 2005).
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Szmagalska-Follis, K. Are the European Union’s New Boundaries like the Iron Curtain? 1989, Borders and Freedom of Movement in Poland and Ukraine. Int J Polit Cult Soc 22, 385–400 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10767-009-9073-9
- Border regime
- Iron curtain
- European Union